In Stig of the Dump by Clive King, bored Barney meets a Stone Age boy in a rubbish filled chalk pit near his grandmother’s home. Despite being unable to speak to each other the boys strike up a friendship based around the mutual pleasure of making and fixing stuff using bits of rusty cars, broken bottles and hats from old scarecrows.
The novel looks at the world of children away from adult gaze. French critical writer Paul Hazard called this the ‘republic of childhood,’ stressing the importance of children’s imaginative freedom and of ‘entering the child’s world’ as a place separate and possibly superior to the adult domain. It was an idea that really came to the fore during the postwar period in books by writers including Philippa Pearce and Lucy M. Boston.
Stig and Barney’s friendship plays out on the boundary of the physical world and the imagination. Returning to his grandmother’s house covered in chalk and bruises following a fall into the pit, Barney is able to explain quite truthfully what has happened.
‘Who’s Stig,’ they both asked together.
‘He’s a ‘sort of boy,’ replied Barney. ‘He just wears rabbit-skins and lives in a cave. He gets his water through a vacuum cleaner and puts chalk in the bath. He’s my friend.’
His grandmother and sister accept this unlikely story as being perfectly normal, albeit imaginary, and despite the physical injuries sustained a more than healthy pursuit for a small boy. It is entirely possible that the entire novel is in Barney’s imagination. But this isn’t the point – Barney’s relationship with Stig is equally valuable whether real or imagined.
Stig of the Dump was published in 1963, the epochal year that saw the publication of that other great study of our primal selves, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Children also met Doctor Who for the first time in ‘An Unearthly Child’ which, like Stig, began in a junk yard before time-travelling to the Stone Age. But where the Doctor and his companions have a machine to whisk them away, Stig relies on a more literary device, the ‘time slip,’ the practice of simply falling out of one time and arriving in another.
The final act sees Barney and his unflappable little sister Lou walk into the Kent countryside on Midsummer’s night and find themselves in Stig’s time. There is no explanation for why this happens – or indeed how Stig finds himself living in a 1960s chalk pit in the first place. Sophie Kirtley, author of stone age adventure The Wild Way Home told the Deeper Reading podcast about the difficulties of pulling off a time slip.
Deeper Reading · Sophie Kirtley on Stig Of The Dump by Clive King
‘Contemporary child readers are going to ask why and want some sort of logical explanation. At the time when Stig was written there were a lot of “doors left ajar.” In Tom’s Midnight Garden it’s never quite fully explained, it sort of makes sense because you don’t think too hard. The main trigger is emotional change, and maybe that’s what Barney needed in Stig of the Dump too. Sometimes you just need to be somewhere else.’
Another transhistorical conundrum is how to deal with communication. Clive King chooses to make Stig more or less mute for most of the book. His boys get by relying on what Lucy Pearson describes in The Making of Modern Children’s Literature as an ‘essential childness that allows them to work together as equals.’
Somewhat confoundingly when we reach Stig’s time it turns out he is in fact something of an orator and makes a speech to the chief, ‘like someone on the wireless.’ Sophie Kirtley also opted to leave the boys ability to just about understand one other unexplained.
‘There’s an element of a leap of faith. I wanted their language to be like when you go to another place and you might know a few words but you get by using gestures and silly things. I wanted it to be like learning a new language and a new culture in a way that felt natural.’
Despite a few anachronisms and the sort of episodic structure that you rarely see in modern children’s books, Stig remains hugely popular today. It’s easy to understand their fascination with the extraordinary Stig, but they also perhaps recognise a shared experience with Barney and his exploration of the republic of childhood.